Guest Blogger: Alan Jacobson
Nearly every interview I’ve done the past three years has included at least this question: you’re a guy and your main character’s a female. (Then the question takes on various iterations.) What the heck? Why? What were you thinking? (Or my favorite:) How do you do a woman so well?
Some writers are taught to create their characters as if they were filling out a form for their doctor’s office. Here are the blanks; fill them in and presto, you’ll have your character. What color does she like? What’s her favorite food? Where does she go for coffee? And so on.
I’ve never done that—but if you’re one of the writers who does fill out such forms—if it works for you, keep doing it. For me, there’s little correlation between listing nuances about my character’s preferences and my ability to create a compelling individual with depth and credibility the reader will care about.
My main character, the first female FBI profiler, Karen Vail, came to me one day when I was writing a scene for an unpublished novel. I had not planned her. She wasn’t part of my outline. She just emerged from my fingertips—and blew me away. I realized right then that I would have to write an entire novel featuring her as the main character. At the time I was in the midst of two years of study and research with the FBI Behavioral Analysis (profiling) Unit in Quantico. I had profiling on the brain, living and breathing it in an attempt to get a handle on it to such an extent that I felt I could create a compelling story—with believable and credible characters. Still, at that point, I had not yet met the real female profiler. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I was shocked when she walked in the room a few weeks later. The real woman bore an uncanny resemblance to my fictional Vail: a redheaded, sarcastic, tough woman who was very skilled at what she did.
I did not finish writing The 7th Victim until five years later. And though it was a long slog through the minds of serial killers and behavioral analysts, I don’t regret any of the time it took me to build up my knowledge base to the point where I was able to write the novel that The 7th Victim ultimately became (named one of Library Journal’s top five best books of the year).
Oddly enough, the first 75 pages of The 7th Victim were written not just by a male writing as a woman. I wrote them in the first person. My agent, however, told me that because I’d written my first two published novels in the third person, I would “confuse my readers.” She wanted me to start over. I was frustrated because this was some of the best writing I’d ever done—and this is how Karen Vail came to me. I didn’t know if her personality would come through the same way if I changed point of view.
But my agent was the industry professional with all the experience, so I followed her advice—sort of. Bizarre, but true: I used the Find/Replace feature in Microsoft Word and replaced all the I’s with She’s and My’s with Hers, etc. I then sat back and read the first few paragraphs. I was mesmerized. I’d created a new “Karen Vail point of view,” which was third person with a first person sensibility. It brought the reader very close to Vail.
I liked it so much that I wrote the rest of The 7th Victim that way—and when my publisher told me that Vail “had to be” a series character because of the terrific response they’d received, I wrote Crush (last year’s release) and Velocity (just released on 10/5) with the same point of view.
So what does this mean about character creation? If the creative juices are flowing, follow your instincts and give yourself the freedom to go with it and see where it takes you. Many times characters are composites of people we know. That’s not my preference, either, though I have done it once or twice. My characters come from who they are as people, how they respond to the story’s actions, how they deal with the consequences of their actions and the actions of others in the story. But I always know who they are as people.
In Crush, although I had the basic story fully outlined before I started writing, there was one thing I did not know: Vail’s chemistry with her task force partner, Roxxann Dixon. (Again, a woman—what’s gotten into me?) When Dixon walked into the room and Vail took a look at her, I instantly knew who Roxxann Dixon was: she was an attractive blonde who was into working out and who had a strong relationship with some of the men on the task force. In some sense, she was the anti-Vail—on the surface. Deep down, however, they’d had a lot of similar challenges in their lives, and they built a common bond based on that. Rather than becoming rivals, as it appeared would happen in that first scene, they became close friends and confidants. Their relationship was so stimulating for me as the writer that it took on a life of its own. I can’t imagine having written Crush with Vail’s partner being someone else.
One of the best parts about writing a series character is being able to explore new sides of that person in future adventures. In Velocity, for instance, we see a very different Karen Vail than we did in Crush; in Crush, Vail’s in a new environment—the Napa Valley—and knows nothing about wine except that she likes it. But learning about the industry ultimately becomes a key for her in working the case. But in Velocity, she’s driven because of what’s at stake—and it’s deeply personal. I actually wrote a vision statement for Vail before I started writing Velocity. I’d never done that before. But it came to me, so I started typing. It focused solely on the emotions behind what Vail was feeling. And when I finished the novel, I realized that Vail had emerged from my fingertips exactly how I’d envisioned her. Publisher’s Weekly picked up on it, as did Library Journal and almost every Velocity reviewer that I’ve read thus far. We see an edgier Vail, but one who also has a heart, despite her take-no-prisoners attitude.
I guess the point is this: character creation is not a science, it’s an art. You can fill out all the forms you want, but if it doesn’t give you a sense of who that person is, deep down, emotionally—not colors and food favorites—you don’t really have a character that you, the writer, can confuse at times with a real person. If you sometimes forget that your characters aren’t real people, you’ve succeeded. You, the writer, has to find what works for you. No two people think alike. No two creative people create alike. What works for me may not work for you. Find what works for you and do it. Again, and again. Because if you’ve got an engaging main character, everything else will follow. Including success.
One last unrelated thought: One of the FBI profilers I’ve worked with now for almost 18 years co-wrote a personal safety booklet with me. It’s totally free—and vitally important for you and your loved ones, men, women, teens, children. Get it at www.AlanJacobson.com. Stay safe.
Do you have an unusual story as to how you created a character? Let us know!
ALAN JACOBSON is the national bestselling author of the critically acclaimed thrillers Velocity, Crush, The 7th Victim, The Hunted, and False Accusations. Alan has a degree in English and a doctorate in chiropractic medicine. Both The 7th Victim and a forthcoming thriller, Hard Target, are under development as major feature films. A native New Yorker, Alan migrated to California, where he now cracks spines of a different sort.